Congress running out of options on impeachment saga

November 27, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Republicans in the House have boxed themselves into an awkward political corner in their pursuit of President Clinton.

If they bring articles of impeachment to the floor of the House of Representatives but then fail to pass them, they will allow the White House to claim total exoneration for the president.

Such a claim would be as thin as clam broth, but the fine print soon is forgotten by many Americans. There are a lot of people who should know better who believe Richard M. Nixon was an injured party, not a guilty felon in the Watergate case simply because he was pardoned by President Gerald R. Ford shortly after leaving office.

The same is true of Nixon's vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, who was allowed to plead no contest and escape any jail time, though he signed a 40-page admission of guilt to all kinds of felonious behavior.

The conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill is that the House Judiciary Committee will report at least one or two articles of impeachment and send them to the floor of the House on a party-line vote. But what happens then is far from certain.

Counting heads

Although no one has hard figures, various head counts indicate there are enough Republicans prepared to vote against impeachment to deny a majority even if, as may happen, two or three Democrats vote to impeach.

Thus, the prospect is for a starkly partisan exercise, whether or not impeachment is voted. And the one thing that has contributed the most to the political problems of congressional Republicans has been the perception that they are too blindly partisan and carrying out a vendetta against the Democratic president.

It is an image that developed in large measure because of the noisy partisanship of Speaker Newt Gingrich and one that his replacement, Bob Livingston of Louisiana, seems determined to dissolve. That is going to be hard to accomplish with party-line votes, however.

The one thing that could change the equation most significantly would be the unveiling of new evidence of wrongdoing on Mr. Clinton's part. That's what the Judiciary Committee seems to be seeking in taking depositions on the Kathleen Willey matter -- another case in which the president has flatly denied Ms. Willey's charge that he fondled her when she went to his office seeking a job on the White House staff.

Losing steam

The Republicans clearly hope to demonstrate that Mr. Clinton committed perjury with his denial and that the White House attempted to intimidate Ms. Willey to prevent her from bringing the accusation into the public arena. That could amount to an obstruction of justice. But if independent counsel Kenneth Starr couldn't make such a case, you have to wonder how the committee can do so at this stage.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 11/27/98

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